For more reflections on the Basilica Hymns of each season, purchase Perpetual Jubilee: Meditations on the Chaldean Liturgical Year on Amazon.com.
Above & Below
It is difficult, today, to present a clear picture of what exactly we mean when we say “heaven.” In the ancient world, and indeed in most ancient languages, the word would have been the same as “sky,” but no such simple physical association is possible any longer. Even in the ancient world, it would have been impossible, except in the most primitive culture, to conceive of God and the angels, or even of the “gods” of a pagan culture, living in the sky, somewhere physically “up.” God is spirit, as are the angels, as even the gods became at a relatively early time in even pagan religions. Especially today, when “up” and “down” have become relative terms, and earth is no longer either the “bottom” or the “center” of any objectified space, can heaven be conceived of as a location of any kind.
It must be the case, then, that heaven is not a location but a state of existence, a way of being, which is totally spiritual and beyond the confines of locality. Holiness, not vertical distance from the surface of the earth, is the standard for heavenliness, and it is most meaningful for us to understand heaven “above” in this way.
The Basilica Hymn of the Sixth Sunday of Epiphany plays with the images of up and down, of above and below:
Above in the heights, all the legions of angels glorify you, and with you, your Father. On earth also, the whole race of mortals kneels before you and adores.
Heaven being the “place” of the angels, and earth the place of human beings, the unification that occurs between the glorifications of the angels and the adoration of human beings is a striking one in the context of the sinful race of Adam. After the awful reality of sin, the human race was unworthy even of an earthly paradise, much less a heavenly one; and yet, because of some awesome event, this spiritual distance between heaven and earth is made nothing.
The Path of Humility
It is Christ who, through all that he did on this earth, shows us and is the one Path, the Way to heaven. It is not the construction of proud towers or the brute force of human will that unites us with the angels above, as in the construction of the tower of Babylon; it is not even looking “up” that points us in the right direction. On the contrary, it is looking down, it is the Incarnation, Christ, who is the very Humility of God, who accepted abjection and humiliation when he came down to this earth, which leads us up to the glorious, radiant light of heaven above:
For through the Jordan and the water in it, you sanctified all springs: you were baptized in it, while above sin, and showed us, in your mercy, the path of life’s salvation. Thus were you pleased to free the whole race of mortals. O Lord, glory to you!